The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents June 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Crystal Skull
Filmmakers Forum
DVD Playback
Bonnie and Clyde
The Draughtsmans Co
Postwar Kurosawa
ASC Close-Up
The Draughtsmans Contract (1982)
1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Zeitgeist Video, $29.99

In the late 17th century in the English countryside, an elite British couple, Lord and Lady Herbert (Dave Hill and Janet Suzman), live with their daughter, her husband, several officers in Lord Herbert’s employ, and numerous servants. Lord Herbert, an avid gardener, is so devoted to his passion for greenery that he barely acknowledges his wife, Virginia, and often spends weeks away from home. Upon meeting a handsome and arrogant draughtsman named Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), Virginia asks him to make sketches of the estate, which she intends to present to her husband as a gift in the hope of rekindling the spark in their relationship.

Neville agrees to 12 sketches in exchange for room and board, a stipend, and a sexual favor for each drawing. Desperate for the love of her husband yet shamefully aroused by Neville’s vulgar demand, she agrees. As the summer days pass, Neville begins to produce the drawings as nervous Virginia provides for his pleasure. A strange pattern begins to emerge in Neville’s drawings: odd items are left in plain view around the grounds. When Lord Herbert’s body is found on the estate, speculation flares that Neville is responsible for the murder, his intent given away by his drawings.

After years of art school, filmmaker Peter Greenaway sought a project that evoked what was often a quandary for him: should an artist draw what he sees or what he knows? Having made several avant-garde films, Greenaway had also been thinking about creating a more traditional narrative. His screenplay for The Draughtsman’s Contract addressed both of these objectives. He was given a green light to make the film by a new company, Film on 4, which produced artistic fare for television and also guaranteed short theatrical runs. During preproduction, Greenaway met cinematographer Curtis Clark, ASC (Alamo Bay, Extremities), and asked him to work on the project. Taken with many of Greenaway’s ideas about the film resembling a classic painting, Clark looked for ways to push the use of 16mm, which was commonly used in BFI/Film 4 productions at that time. He opted to use the new Super 16mm format to give the images the optimum potential for 35mm theatrical prints.

Greenaway insisted on using real light for the exteriors; for interiors, he used available light and candles, and also used reflective white makeup applied to the actors and two- and three-wick trick candles for maximum effect. The cinematographer was also instrumental in getting Cooke Optics to create a 9-50mm zoom lens for the Super 16mm camera. In an essay included in this DVD package, Clark writes, “It’s the fusion of heightened creative imagination in narrative filmmaking with timely technical innovations working within a constrained production budget to create an uncompromised result that proved to be a groundbreaking, artistic achievement.” 

Zeitgeist Video’s recently released DVD of The Draughtsman’s Contract will be a revelation to fans familiar with the film’s striking, often incandescent imagery. A previous DVD release by Fox Lorber featured a less-than-adequate picture transfer, but Clark’s meticulous work has been given a beautiful high-definition transfer for this edition. One of the DVD’s supplements compares the different video transfers of the film, and this one is clearly the best. Given that it was shot on Super 16mm, it’s quite remarkable how much nuance and color are visible in every scene; there is minimal artifacting or visible grain. The original monaural audio is also clear and vibrant.

This DVD includes an array of supplements: a dense audio commentary and 10-minute introduction by Greenaway, 10 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, a brief discussion with composer Michael Nyman, four deleted scenes, and essays by Greenaway and Clark.

Zeigeist has done a fine job of presenting this unusual erotic mystery on DVD, bringing all its intricate images to life. As film moves into the 21st century with new technology racing alongside, it’s important to celebrate and uphold the notion of “film as art.” The Draughtsman’s Contract is a perfect example of that.

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